Pre-modern asceticism in the West has been mapped out in past scholarship as a territory with clear-cut boundaries that segregate religious traditions, cultures, and genders. Processes of intra- and interreligious transfer and transformation have been largely ignored. Judaism and Islam, for example, while an integral part of the religious landscape of the post-Late Antique Mediterranean world, were all too often conceptualized as world-affirming religions devoid of ascetic practices, leaving them outside the field of study. Furthermore, the ascetic peaks in this very landscape were perceived as undisputed domains of Christian hegemony, which remained, to a large extent, isolated from the asceticism championed by various non-Christian philosophers and religious sectarians in the Greco-Roman world. As for the Christian heroes who turned against the flesh to lift their spirits toward the heights, they were commonly classified in binary fashion, neatly separated into male monks and female nuns.
The overly biased and distorted view propagated by such rigid conceptual demarcations has been debunked in the last two decades or so. A close reading of the sources reveals that the map of ancient asceticism drawn by past scholarship has included stereotypes and tropes derived from ancient rhetoric, which after all was in the business of creating realities and identities, not describing them. This recent conceptual blurring of religious, cultural, and gender boundaries has its own challenges, such as the redrawing of the map of pre-modern asceticism.
The workshop focuses on the role of gender in personal and impersonal transfers of knowledge between teachers and students, institutions and society, and different religions and cultures, in order to better understand the historical processes of knowledge transformation in pre-modern asceticism. Invited speakers will apply this rethinking of gendered knowledge, along with the latest theoretical insights of gender and body studies, to crucial examples of asceticism in the premodern world. Our goal is to shed light on the interconnectedness between gender, ascetic training, and the transfer and transformation of religious knowledge both within and among the three monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean world from antiquity to the dawn of modernity.
The following guiding questions frame our approach:
The conference will explore these issues as well as how ascetic knowledge changed when it was transferred into different religions and cultures, focusing especially on the continuities, transformations, and discontinuities in how gender was conceptualized. We also ask how and to what degree processes of knowledge transfer and adaptation in these new religious and cultural environments reflect back on earlier traditions and what, if any, this reflection had on new traditions.