Giving Up Stuff, Then and Now

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

Several people have said to me that I would have made a good medieval monk. I never asked why: mostly out of self-preservation, but also because I’m fairly confident that they are wrong.

I like my things way too much. Examples include a bowl that a neighbor used to give out Halloween candy, a table I got from a friendly stranger on Craigslist, the several pieces of furniture that I have spent many days of my life building from rough planks of construction-grade pine.

I’m not a hoarder or a social climber or even that much of a consumer. Instead, that stuff represents social connections, remembrance, and investment of labor. According to a certain set of modern sensibilities, these attachments could be considered benign. There are at least two groups of who would disagree: hardcore minimalists and certain early medieval nuns.

I’m wary of suggesting that tech-bubble beneficiary Graham Hill and the Merovingian Queen Radegund, to take an example of each, have all that much in common. But this is an instance in which the medieval past, however different, can help to illuminate the present. Both individuals organized their lives around the ideal of giving up property: minimalism in the parlance of the former, poverty (though not as we would understand it today) in that of the latter. In both instances, the renunciation of property also sits uneasily alongside their elite status, which I do not think is a coincidence. The comparison illuminates several features of the minimalist movement, including its formal similarities to early Christian ascesis and the incessant revival in the Middle Ages of “apostolic poverty.”

 

AlmaTadema-VenantiusFortunatus

Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Venantius Fortunatus Reading His Poems to Radegund offers a dreamy depiction of life at the Convent of the Holy Cross. Though with Radegund’s connections to the Byzantine court, Venantius’s Italian training and bona fides, and perhaps an architectural plan borrowed from Jerusalem, it might be right to think of the convent as an international cultural hub.

Poverty—in the sense of the renouncing of legal ownership of money and moveable and immoveable goods, and not in the sense of lacking the resources to meet basic needs of survival—ebbed and flowed as an ideal throughout Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. The version which which I’m most familiar relates to the institutionalization of female monasticism in the cloister under an abbess and defined by a set of rules. In Gaul, bishops articulated this vision of monasticism in a haphazard and localized fashion through diverse church councils and monastic rules; it was enacted in practice through widespread royal and noble endowments of monasteries according to different religious preferences and through the administration of bishops who could be more or less interested in the extent to which nuns held to a cenobitic (communal, as opposed to hermetic) ideal.

 

One well-known example is the Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, founded in the mid-sixth century by Radegund, a Merovingian queen. Radegund’s convent adopted the Regula ad virgines of Bishop Caesarius of Arles, written and revised throughout the early sixth century for a convent that he founded and that his sister headed. Caesarius wanted, above all, for the nuns and convent to be as removed as possible from the world around them. But independence was a difficult ideal to manufacture in practice, largely because of property. Individual nuns had to give up their own property in an effort to divest themselves of markers of difference from the other sisters and of all sorts of bonds of obligation with people outside the convent. Unfortunately, giving away property generated yet more obligations, and any given nun could also inherit property at any future date. All these claims also had to be given up. Once inside the convent, the nuns could not even have their own locked chest or cupboard; almost everything was shared. For Caesarius and those who followed his rule, any reveling in the material should be avoided. But materiality that anchors you in a particular social context is the most pernicious inhibitor of transcendence.

Because the vow of poverty was so important to theoretically pure visions of cloister, one nun could accuse another of—horribile dictu—owning something. In 589, some forty nuns fled the convent. According to the event’s chronicler, Gregory of Tours, the errant monastics denounced their miserable living conditions and the impious behavior of their abbess, Leubovera. Chrodieldis and Basina, the leaders of the revolt and members of the Merovingian royal family, struggled to get secular or religious authorities to address their legal complaints, so they gathered a group of armed men, occupied the nunnery estates, and eventually kidnapped the abbess.

An unbelievably protracted jurisdictional conflict ensued, but Chrodieldis finally got her day in court. There, her effort to show that the abbess had ruled unjustly centered almost entirely around various failures to adequately avoid owning things. Leubovera had misused monastery funds, she owned her own property, she had exchanged goods and done so in secret, and she had used silks and precious metals for purposes other than decorating the oratory. These charges, and others, all violated specific provisions of Caesarius’ Regula.

There is something particularly galling about this series of accusations. Chrodieldis was a princess; Leubovera is usually assumed not to have been especially high-born. A princess claimed that someone of lesser status failed to embody poverty well enough. And she did so in order to reorder, according to the hierarchy of secular society, a space where status was not supposed to matter, where it was even supposed to be a hindrance to holiness. It is difficult to avoid the impression that what matters here is knowing the rules of the game, rather than actual renunciation. At least one savvy nun could conceive of an accusation of ownership as a legal strategy that was, of course, ultimately a strategy for righting the social order. (Her argument failed, but only because she could not prove the facts of her case.)

The ability of elites to co-opt supposedly equalizing spaces or values and remake them in their own image is one of the disturbingly pernicious aspects of the renunciation of poverty. The most prolific minimalists today, those who receive New York Times and New York Magazine profiles, are male millionaires who have decided to downsize to seek happiness. Encouraging others to live in small spaces and make do with a limited amount of stuff does wonders for their personal brands. The wealthy who live a restrained lifestyle receive speaking fees, advertising revenue from traffic to their websites, and book deals as a result; those who inhabit small apartments or eschew accumulation out of need do not.

The comparison between early medieval monasticism and the current minimalist movement is not quite as strained as it looks, in particular because minimalism has all of the trappings of early Christianity. There is always a conversion narrative. It offers happiness, financial well-being, and relief from many ills of contemporary life, like feeling out of control. Calling yourself a minimalist denotes not just an aesthetic, but an enlightened cosmology that separates practitioners from others: there is more to life than the increasing accumulation of stuff. (The reader is usually allowed to define for her- or himself what the “more” is.) Like those of any good religion, the principles of minimalism are easily modulated according to class and gender. The magazine profiles of male Silicon Valley entrepreneur-minimalists are one corner of a vast landscape that also includes wildly popular “simple living” blogs primarily by and for young women with children, as well as more masculine-skewing personal finance communities centered around frugality and Financial Independence/Retire Early. “Minimalism Is for Everyone; Be More with Less.”

Minimalism’s similarity of form to early Christianity highlights some uncomfortable differences as well. Medieval monastics renounced property to seek perfection of self and community, but most minimalists comment only on the relationship between self and stuff. Minimalism offers no critique of systems that produce stuff, of how economies are organized, or of the social or environmental impact of consumption. These blinders lead to the very strange state of affairs that someone who owns several electronic devices, flies long distances on a weekly or monthly basis, and stays primarily in short-term domiciles is understood to consume less than someone with an apartment and a slightly larger wardrobe, which is complete nonsense by any normal metric of sustainability or impact. Minimalism claims much of its status because it offers special, countercultural insight. In comparison with early medieval monasticism, which attempted to build from the ground up systems that separated entire communities from the demands of the material world, minimalism’s exhortation to own less to feel better appears neither particularly well-thought nor all that radical.

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