Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part I

Threshing and pig feeding from a book of hours from the Workshop of the Master of James IV of Scotland (Flemish, c. 1541), Wikipedia (public domain)

A few years ago I was invited to present a paper at a colloquium of scholars gathered to discuss topics related to the intersection of faith and economic work in the history of the church. What I presented was a first stab at a research agenda: 2/3 of a larger idea about a certain theme in medieval Christianity. Since the paper was never published, I intend to blog it here in sections. So, to begin:


The question of this paper is this: Was there, in the Middle Ages, an understanding of economic labor as inherently inimical to the spiritual life – especially as modeled by monasticism?

It is certainly true, as the great medievalist R. W. Southern says, that through its 1,200+ late ancient and medieval years of activity, monasticism was often involved in and compromised by the world. R. W. Southern talks about this complexity:

“Everywhere in the history of the religious Orders we find that associations which were founded as a protest against the world and all its ways had their destinies shaped for them by the society in which they had their being. There were many forces which shaped them, even against their will: their property, their family connexions, their secular functions, and the opportunity which they offered their members for advancement to the highest places in the social order. The ‘worldliness’ of medieval religious communities has often been remarked and generally criticized, and it is true that anyone who looks at these communities for a pure expression of the aims of their founders must very often be disappointed. The states of mind and aspirations expressed in the Rules and Foundation deeds of the various Orders were not realized in any large measure. The driving forces in their development were quite different from those of the original founders.”[i]

But the question is, would medievals themselves share the underlying assumption of this analysis: the supposed “fact” that economic work must, by its very nature, hamper spiritual formation?

For Southern is not the first modern church historian who, perhaps often extrapolating from their own experience of the clash between God and mammon in the industrial West, has assumed that the medieval church understood there to be an essential incompatibility, even an irreconcilable enmity, between what we might call spiritual and economic work.

This has manifested, for example, in the assumption that where the more rigorous, reformed monastic orders engaged in economic activity of any sort beyond that intended to secure bare subsistence, it represented a recognized declension of their spiritual ideals. Or in the argument, familiar to those with any passing involvement in what we tend to call “the faith and work movement,” that by the late medieval period, Western Christians saw only monastic or priestly work as true “vocations” to God – with only the cloistered able to pursue true spiritual devotion – a state of affairs from which Luther was forced to rescue the church.  

However, this paper suggests that at a number of points, the evidence challenges this received scholarly doctrine. This paper set out to look at understandings of complementarity between spiritual and economic work at three historical loci:

  • the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, then the 6th-century monk-pope Gregory the Great and (following him) Bernard of Clairvaux (though I have not reached him as of this draft) on “the active life and the contemplative life,”

  • the complementary spiritual and economic practices of 12th-century monastic houses in the Cistercian order, founded by the aforementioned Bernard, and

  • the pro-work devotional writings of the late 13th– and early 14th-century German lay mystics Meister Eckhart and Johann Tauler (though as of this draft I have not reached them). 

Each of these loci will help us tease out three sub-themes or sub-theories related to our main question – three ways in which we might test the theory about the irreconcilability of economic and spiritual work in the Middle ages.

We will certainly find that these themes interact in complex ways, but I separate them out for heuristic purposes:

  1. First, we will test the theory that medievals found economic work to be incompatible with spiritual work because of the sheer busyness that comes with economic activity – the way it saps time that a person could be spending in spiritual focus and contemplation. We can call this “the busyness thesis.”

  2. Second, we will test the theory that medievals found economic work to be incompatible with spiritual work because of the temptation to love money that can come with economic activity, by which material gain can become an idol that supplants God in people’s focus and saps spiritual vibrancy. We can call this “the mammon thesis.”

  3. Third, we will test the theory that medievals found economic work to be incompatible with spiritual work because of the exposure to the world that comes with economic activity, which can corrupt the soul and hamper growth in holiness. We can call this “the worldliness thesis.”

All three of these themes are worked out during the whole Middle Ages very much in the context of monasticism – even the lay movements – as was just about every other aspect of medieval society. Augustine, Gregory, and Bernard are all monks themselves. The Cistercians are obviously monks. And the lay spiritual movement borrowed much of its substance from monasticism.

. . . continued in part II

[i] R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Churches in the Middle Ages, 215-16.

One response to “Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part I

  1. Pingback: Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part II | Grateful to the dead

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