Science

Animation by René Lapoutre

Self-help for homesick monks

Medieval influencers

Animation by René Lapoutre
Loneliness and homesickness were serious threats to medieval monks. So influential clergymen wrote them letters that served kind of like self-help literature, discovered medievalist Theo Lap.
9 November om 11:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 9 November 2021
om 11:27 uur.
November 9 at 11:27 AM.
Last modified on November 9, 2021
at 11:27 AM.

Door Christien Boomsma

9 November om 11:27 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 9 November 2021
om 11:27 uur.

By Christien Boomsma

November 9 at 11:27 AM.
Last modified on November 9, 2021
at 11:27 AM.

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Full bio

Eleventh-century church father Anselm of Canterbury was essentially an influencer way ahead of his time. He wrote nearly four hundred letters. Arnulf of Lisieux and Peter Cellensis did the same, but these twelfth-century bishops didn’t write quite as many letters as Anselm.

Hundreds of letters that were seemingly addressed to just the abbot but were in fact intended for the entire monastery. What were the letters about?

Not just anybody

‘They wrote letters about the bond between friends, the connection you can have with a location, or about memories’, says medievalist Theo Lap. ‘These bishops, who’d long since left the monastery, talk about how young new monks can best withstand the temptations of their former lives.’

The idea was for the monks to take the bishops’ wise words to heart. After all, they weren’t just anybody; Anselm of Canterbury was even canonised after his death. That means they were shining examples to the monks. Surely, they all wanted to be as pious and steadfast as these bishops? ‘Their great lives were an example to others’, says Lap.

Tips for lonely monks

‘You seek, I say, consolation because you feel desolation, you beg aid because you bear exile, you beseech me for a reparation because you bewail separation. Who then am I to be able to write you in such a way that you may be encouraged, strengthened, comforted? Indeed, I can scarce pray for you; in no way can I achieve anything by my prayer.’

Peter of Celle, ep. 64.

But the letters written by Anselm and the others reveal something else, something perhaps less obvious: the letters appear to be carefully arranged by theme. This shows that homesickness and loneliness were a serious problem in medieval monasteries.

Too rose-coloured

This is the striking conclusion of Lap’s thesis Consoling for Homesickness: The Transformation of Worldly Bonds in Three 12th-Century Monastic Letter Collections, for which he’s getting his PhD this month. People often have too rose-coloured a view of medieval monastic life, says Lap.

‘We tend to think the lives of monks were idyllic’, he says. ‘That all they did was sing, read, pray.’ This idea has been reinforced over the past few years by the increasing popularity of silent retreats, which allows people to flee the stress of their daily lives by staying in a monastery for a few days. But this wasn’t how monks lived their daily lives.

‘It was a hard existence’, says Lap. ‘They had to leave everything behind: their friends, their homes, their families. It definitely wasn’t easy.’ The researcher says that people don’t really know what monastic life was really like. ‘A monk’s regimen was really strict; they didn’t ever get a good night’s sleep, because they had to pray every three hours. Any previous obedience to their father or master now transferred to the abbot. They lost their personal autonomy.’

Study and work

In between prayers, the monks had to work hard. They had to work the land and man the kitchen to contribute to life at the monastery. Even their reading time wasn’t all that relaxing. ‘They were required to do contemplative reading. Everything they read, they had to apply to themselves. They had to both study and do work.’

Tips for lonely monks

‘Frequently he will recall to your mind’s eye how delightful were those things you used to enjoy and thus continually insinuate how difficult it will be to avoid the pleasures you were accustomed to, how impossible it will be for you to persevere in that austere rigor and rigorous austerity throughout your whole life, wherefore, at the memory of accustomed delights, your soul may be more horrified at the temperance of a more sublime way of life.’

Anselmus of Canterbury, ep. 99

Anyone who slipped up was raked over the coals in front of the entire community.  Slip ups could be anything, from eating too much to falling victim to ‘carnal desires’. 

All in all, monastic life was a ‘mental marathon’, says Lap. ‘We think we know all about work stress and the pressure to perform, but these monks suffered a lot of pressure, too.’ 

Emotions

We just haven’t paid much attention to their plight, says Lap. Until now, the bishops’ letters were mainly used to look for historical details and to gain insight into the writers’ lives. Researchers also tended to think that emotions weren’t that big a deal to people in the medieval period. 

For the longest time, people thought that homesickness or nostalgia was a modern phenomenon, says Lap. The word ‘nostalgia’ wasn’t even coined until 1688, when Swiss physician Johannes Hofer studied Swiss mercenaries in France and Germany who were pathologically homesick for the mountains. 

But the idea that these people didn’t have feelings is wrong, says Lap. ‘They weren’t robots, they were people of flesh and blood.’ Some monks, driven to the brink, decided to run from the monastery. Others started drinking or engaged in relationships with women. Serious issues at the time.

Laziness

One of the seven cardinal sins refers to feeling homesick, says Lap. ‘The sin known as “sloth” is called acedia in Latin.’ These days, this word is translated as ‘listlessness’ or ‘boredom’, but in the Middle Ages, it denoted a form of homesickness. 

‘The demon would also attack desert fathers like Anthony’, says Lap. ‘When the sun is burning overhead and you’ve barely got anything to eat or drink, that’s when you might start wondering if you’ve made the right choice.’

Tips for lonely monks

‘Even in the midst of your bitter sufferings my soul rejoices; how much more so in the contemplation of a glorious reward? […] [I]t is not futile to hope for so certain, so pleasing, and so great a reward.’

Peter of Celle, ep. 17

There was a lot of tension between people’s emotions and Christian culture. ‘The letters address this issue. They say: these are the temptations new monks will face, but it’s just the devil trying to lure you back to your old life’, says Lap. 

Transform

Any incident, like a monk running away, could lead to the prelate to dictate one of the letters to the monastery’s abbot. This letter would then be read aloud to the entire monastery and was then included in the library, albeit not in chronological order. ‘The first letters in the collection often talk about what happened, and the subsequent letters try to provide moral support to the readers.’

Lap is especially enchanted by the type of moral support in the letters. ‘The letters didn’t reject these emotions as something evil’, he says. Rather, the letter writers tried to support the monks ‘so they could transform these feelings and turn their worldly bonds into a bond with God’.

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