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

Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks, on a calendar page for August. Queen Mary’s Psalter. Wikimedia commons, public domain

Continued from part I

In the first part of this essay, I offer three potential medieval objections to the compatibility of spiritual and economic work–the “busyness thesis,” the “mammon thesis,” and the “worldliness thesis”; then I continue:

Of course, one thing we can say to these three theses is “Yes, at some points in some places in the vast and complex thousand-year landscape of medieval Europe, all three of them have been argued by Christians.”

But, I suggest two further responses to this observation:

First, remember that what we are trying to do is not to prove that these theories were absent everywhere and always in the Middle Ages. It is rather to select countervailing historical instances that challenge the oft-encountered modern scholarly assumption that medievals always or as a rule found economic and spiritual work incompatible – thus either explicitly proscribing economic activity for the spiritually serious (whether monastic or lay), or judging those serious folks who do engage in economic work as derelict in their self-sworn spiritual duties and principles.

Second, we will attend to the very significant social and economic changes in the so-called “high medieval period” in the West (roughly 1050 – 1300) that began to broaden the spiritual life – the via apostolica – from the monastic cloister to the marketplace. This was a period of “increasing population, land reclamation, urban growth, expansion of education opportunities, new trade routes, [and] an emerging merchant class.”[i] So we will be recognizing, if not much geographical variation, at least temporal variation.

However, we should be careful – these social changes do not mean (as some have interpreted) that monasticism and its disciplines was either (1) fully retrenched and retracted into itself, as might be assumed from looking at the austere reforms of the Cistercians and of monastically trained Gregory VII or (2) discarded as a model for the spiritual life of the laity, as one might assume toward the end of the era. Even in the expansion of lay spirituality from the high through the late medieval period – that is, the 500 years before Luther – monasticism continues to be a central character in the story of the relationship between economic and spiritual work.

As for the first assumption – that increased monastic rigor further separated the spiritual way from the way of public, economic life lived by layfolk – it is true that the Gregorian and Cistercian reforms (Gregory VII was pope from 1073 to his death in 1085, and Citeaux and Clairvaux were founded in 1098 and 1115 respectively) reestablished both among church leaders and in the reformed monasteries the rigorous, unworldly private piety long characteristic of the more committed monastic leaders and communities. However, as Torvend points out, during that same period

“monastic centers were actively involved in the training of theologians, administrators, and missionaries who served not only in the church but also in the courts and palaces of secular rulers. Monasteries also established charitable institutions which served a number of purposes: care of the sick, distribution of food and clothing to the needy, shelter for pilgrims and travelers.(13) In addition, tax systems, juridical structures, and the execution of legal decisions were often administered by monks.”[ii]

As for the second assumption, that once new prosperity and social change set the stage for the explosion of popular lay piety, monastic models were discarded: this was not the case. The monastic values of “fraternal charity, study of Scripture, voluntary poverty, active proclamation of the faith” [Torvend] were now simply woven into the lay movements. Those movements less and less assumed that the busyness or worldliness of life in the world – including engagement in economic work – inherently prevented one from walking the via apostolica.

The mammon thesis – that money could be inherently toxic to the spiritual life – proved more resilient – and actually saw rapid increase in some popular lay movements especially from the 12th c. on. We may speculate that this was because of laypeople’s high and increasing degree of engagement in the money economy in that period (which on an individual basis was no doubt higher than that of most monastics). But the teaching of “apostolic poverty” became particularly associated with movements that were deemed heretical, such as the Waldensians, and suppressed by the established church “with extreme prejudice” – which likely damped its impact in the larger culture.[iii]

In search of historical examples that carry sufficient weight and clarity that they pose significant challenges to the received scholarly doctrine, we turn to the undisputedly formative spiritual teachers Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux; the undisputedly rigorous monastic community of the Cistercians; and the undisputedly vibrant and popular late medieval lay spiritual movements such as those informed by the writings of Meister Eckhardt and Johann Tauler (e.g. the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life), to see whether they bear out or challenge our three theses.

. . . continued in part III

[i] Samuel Torvend, “Lay Spirituality in Medieval Christianity” –  https://opcentral.org/resources/2015/01/12/samuel-torvend-lay-spirituality-in-medieval-christianity/ – drawing from Lester Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1978), pp. 29-34.

[ii] Torvend, “Lay Spirituality.”

[iii] “At the same time, a doctrine of spiritual dualism was being preached by certain groups, notably the Albigensians, which promoted a gross contempt of material goods, the body, and sexuality — a contempt paralleled in the heretical teaching which denied the human nature of Christ, the value of the sacraments, and the established ministries of the church. In essence those groups which were heretical taught in both theory and practice that divine truth was vouchsafed only to the simplest and poorest hearers, a teaching which tended to separate gospel from theology, experience from learning, and spirit from matter.” (Torvend, op. cit., drawing from D. Knowles and D. Obolensky, The Middle Ages, in The Christian Centuries, vol. 2, ed. Louis Rogier (New York: Paulist Press, 1969), pp. 365-71.)

2 responses to “Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part II

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

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

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