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in: Judith Bennett and Ruth Marzo-Karras (eds.

), The Oxford Companion on Women and


Gender in the Middle Ages, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013, pp. 432-446.
This chapter is under copyright by the publisher and accessible online if your library has
bought the volume or holds a subscription. Please contact me if you are interested in the
text.
chapter 27

the gender of the


religious: wo/men and the
invention of monasticism
Albrecht  Diem

There is something odd about the historiography of Christian monasticism. Historians


tend to focus either on female monasticism as a separate field of research or on the dif-
ferences between male and female monastic life, and those talking about monasticism in
general often dutifully squeeze the obligatory “fifteen pages on women” into their books.
All this makes us overlook that medieval monastic life emerged as a sequence of “uni-
sex” models. The long-lasting experiment of shaping ideal religious communities and
stable monastic institutions created forms of monastic life that were largely applicable
to both genders (albeit usually in strict separation). Throughout the Middle Ages, male
and female monastic communities largely used a shared corpus of authoritative texts
and a common repertoire of practices.1 Instead of taking for granted that both men and
women had similar options for living a monastic life, we may ask why and how monas-
ticisms (there was never one monasticism) offered relatively nongendered ways of life
within societies that were otherwise profoundly shaped by gender differences.
The history of female martyrs, holy virgins and widows, nuns, and anchoresses (I
use the term “religious women” as reference to all of them) is usually told as a narra-
tive that links islands of knowledge. Compared to the amount of historical evidence on
religious life in general, these islands of knowledge are scarce. Nevertheless, we know
much more about the female gender of the religious than about the male. Men made his-
tory; they were the frames of reference but, as such, they were rarely an object of reflec-
tion. Ubiquitous as they were, religious men were rather invisible as far as their gender
is concerned.2
The history of monasticism, like all histories, needs structures and narratives as
ground to stand on. Yet good chronological syntheses must be questioned in detail,
unmasked in their anachronisms, and challenged in their generalizations. When, for

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