The Emergence of Monasticism

Marilyn Dunn “The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages” [Wiley-Blackwell, 2003]
Emergence of Monasticism
1. The Emergence of Christian Eremiticism.
2. The Development of Communal Life.
3. Women in Early Monasticism.
4. The Meaning of Asceticism.
5. The Evolution of Monasticism in the West.
6. The Rule of St Benedict and its Italian Setting.
7. Britain and Ireland.
8. Irish peregrini and European Monasticism.
9. Monasticism and Society in the Seventh Century.

“’The Emergence of Monasticism’ is the first book to provide a comprehensive account of the emergence of monasticism from its roots in late antiquity and its transition to the early medieval West. Beginning with the search for individual perfection in the context of the religious and social climate of the fourth-century Egypt, it traces the adoption and transformation of monastic ideas and practices first by elites of the western Roman Empire and later by the royalty and aristocracy of the so-called ‘barbarian kingdoms’, including the Franks and Anglo-Saxons.

It tracks the development of monastic rules and includes sections on female asceticism and monasticism, on Irish monasticism and its influence and the developing theology of afterlife and intercession. This unique work based on a detailed consideration texts from the period, their use and adaption, and is the first treatment of the subject to draw together social and religious approaches. The book offers a number of original perspectives on major issues and controversies.”

“What’s in a name? Sometimes, a lot, actually. In the preface to “The Emergence of Monasticism”, Marilyn Dunn explains that her volume will follow “the broad trajectory of the most important aspects of monastic development from the fourth to the seventh centuries rather than being an exhaustive or region-by-region survey” (p. vi). This is true, however, only if she means the development of western monasticism. After an introductory first chapter, the second chapter, “The Development of Communal Life,” leapfrogs from Saint Shenoute in Egypt to Saint Basil in Asia Minor. Thus Dunn skips the vitally important development of monasticism in Palestine and Syria. Then, following a chapter on women (which interrupts the narrative flow), chapter four, “The Meaning of Asceticism,” is essentially a history of earliest western monasticism; Dunn is interested in eastern Christian monasticism only as it influenced the West. Chapters five through nine then survey early medieval monasticism in the West, from Lérins in the fifth century to England in the seventh century. Three-fourths of “The Emergence of Monasticism”, therefore, is on western monasticism and roughly half the book deals with Saint Benedict or later. (With chapter six, on Benedict, one can clearly see that Dunn is standing comfortably on her home turf.) Thus a more accurate title for this volume would have been “The Emergence of Western Monasticism” or “The Emergence of Early Medieval Monasticism,” similar to Peter King’s “Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church” (Cistercian, 1999).
Western Monasticism
Chapter one of “The Emergence of Monasticism” offers a nuanced and up-to-date look at the rise of early Christian monasticism in Egypt. Starting with Egypt while subsequently omitting Palestine and Syria, however, may leave the unsuspecting reader with the impression (now discarded in scholarly circles) that the beginning of monasticism was solely an Egyptian phenomenon. The author does a good job of alternating sections on history with discussions of monastic spiritual life and theology although, for this non-medievalist, the later chapters tended to bog down with too many unfamiliar proper and place names (maps would have helped) and with discussions of the minutiae of monastic Rules. More troubling, for being so avoidable, is the egregious copy-editing or proof-reading of the volume. In addition to eccentric use of commas, the book has dozens and dozens of printing errors: misspelled words, dropped words, repeated words. There are thirty such errors in the first four chapters, after which I quit counting, but they continue to pile up (there are two on the last page), crashing into one another throughout the volume.
For those who care about the ancient and modern monastic hope and impulse, “The Emergence of Monasticism” will not prove to be optimistic reading. Which, of course, is not the author’s fault: she is chronicling what occurred, not engaging in wishful thinking. “By the seventh century,” she concludes, “monasticism, which had originally arisen from the desire for self-mastery, self-transcendence and union with God, embracing the ideal of the voluntary removal of the individual from society, had become closely identified with land-owning and the interests of royalty and aristocracy” (p. 207). On the final page, however, Dunn does look ahead with optimism to the “more modest, contemplative and eremitic” reforms and orders that would arise in the eleventh century. Those monks, like many monks and “lay” monastics today, looked back for inspiration “to the literature of the Egyptian desert and the early monastic life” (p. 208).”
“The Catholic Historical Review” 87.4 (2001) 714-715 at:

The book is available for download at:
Marilyn Dunn is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, UK. She is also the author of “The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c.597-c.700” (2010) and “Belief and Religion in Barbarian Europe c. 350-700” (2013).


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