John S. Ott
Portland State University
HST 354U - Early Medieval Europe, 300-1100
 

Reading Guide:

Athanasios, Life St. Antony; Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin;
Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St. Benedict



Athanasios of Alexandria, Life of St. Antony (composed ca. 356-373 C.E.)
(1) What kinds of images and metaphors does Athanasius use to describe Antony's experiences of religious conversion and meditation?  How do these images depict the process of ascetic withdrawal?
(2) What is Antony's attitude toward wealth and worldly honor/power?  How does Athanasios demonstrate it in the text, and why do you think this theme would have been of concern to him?
(3) What kind of person do you think the text's author, Athanasios, was?  For whom and for what purpose(s) do you think the Life of St. Antony was written?  How can you tell?
(4)  What are the limitations and strengths of hagiography as a historical source?

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin of Tours (composed ca. 396)

The second hagiographical work we are reading, the Life of St. Martin of Tours, was composed in Latin by a Gallo-Roman aristocrat and lawyer named Sulpicius Severus (lived ca. 363-425) about 396 C.E., shortly before Martin died in 397--which accounts for its lack of a description of Martin's death.  Sulpicius personally visited Martin in 394 or 395, and their conversations convinced Sulpicius to leave his secular career to pursue a semi-hermitic life on one of his remaining estates.  The Life's popularity was immense, and like the Life of St. Antony, it, too, became a model for later biographies of saints.  Martin of Tours was one of the most popular saints in western Christendom, particularly in the Roman provinces of Gallia (the region comprising modern France) but also in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, and the work was read in the eastern Mediterranean as well.

(1) What kind of model of sanctity does the Life of Saint Martin depict?  How does the fact that Martin was a Roman soldier complicate his conversion and his professional life?
(2) What sort of bishop was Martin?  What is the estimation of Sulpicius about the contemporary priesthood and its bishops?  What do the author's portrayals reveal about the contemporary spiritual preoccupations of the Christian clergy?  How do secular authorities (e.g., the emperor) come out looking in the text?
(3) What can the Life of St. Martin tell us about contemporary attitudes towards religious conversion?  Does the process of conversion described in the text resemble modern conceptions of the process?  If so, how?
(4) What are the particular limitations and strengths of hagiography as a historical source?


Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-ca. 526X547), Rule of St. Benedict (composed ca. 526-530; there is considerable debate about both the dates of Benedict's life and the date of his rule)

The Rule of St. Benedict, or more simply, the Benedictine Rule, was one of many guides to living in a monastic community that were composed and circulated in the Mediterranean World between the fourth and sixth centuries.  Since the popular examples of Antony and Martin, communal retreat and living for both men and women had gained in popularity.  Benedict's rule gained the stamp of approval from no less a figure than Pope Gregory I (ruled 590-604), who wrote a biography of Benedict that is one of the few sources of information we have concerning him.  Benedict devised the rule for the communities of monks he oversaw, most notably at his foundation of Monte Cassino, south of Rome.  The rule centers on the opus dei, or "work of God," which consisted of daily prayer and chant done at eight offices conducted around the clock, 354 days a year. 

In Benedict's day, his rule was by no means the only or most popular.  However, by the ninth century, it had become the most widely adopted monastic rule in western Europe.

(1)  What is the basis of the monastic community's life?
(2)  Into what activities is the community organized?  What does its social structure consist of?