As the saints marched off to war and church leaders sought to define increasingly distinct codes of knightly and clerical behavior, a culture of martial asceticism was taking hold in the monasteries and hermitages of the Latin West. There are only a few scattered references to holy loricati in early-medieval sources, but there is ample evidence of armor-clad ascetics for the period after 1050.

It is perhaps understandable that historians of medieval Christianity have overlooked the loricati when one considers that they hardly form a coherent group. In the first place, they come not from a single geographical area but from various regions of England, France, the empire, and Italy. Moreover, their social backgrounds widely; some were noblemen, and even served as knights before converting religious life, while others came from quite modest backgrounds. The entire spectrum of ecclesiastical offices is represented in their vitae, as priests, monks, high-ranking prelates were associated with this ascetic practice, but many loricati lived on the fringes of the institutional church as hermits and holy men only loosely affiliated with a particular monastic order or community.

The records of their martially inflected ascetic exploits, written by admiring monks across the Latin West, not only hint at the existence of a martial ascetic subculture but are particularly valuable as evidence of monks’ concern with warfare, holiness, and masculinity in a period when the definitions of all three concepts were in a state of flux.

Katherine Allen Smith, “Saints in Shining Armor: Martial Asceticism and Masculine Models of Sanctity, ca. 1050- 1250,” Speculum (2008)

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To judge by the hagiographical evidence, the penitential wearing of armor mostly fallen out of favor with monastic hagiographers by 1250. There are several possible explanations for the loricati‘s decline in the changing religious and social world of the later Middle Ages. Oratores and bellatores, whose simultaneously competitive and symbiotic relationship helped structure society throughout much of the Latin West in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, increasingly found themselves in socioeconomic and spiritual competition with new groups after 1200. Monks and warriors now needed to define themselves in opposition not to one another primarily but to other rivals, such as friars and burghers, who appropriated for themselves many of the functions and discourses that had hitherto defined the two older orders. Shifts in devotional practices may also have rendered the martial asceticism of the loricati obsolete. As the spiritual lives of later medieval Christians came to focus in a meditative and imitative sense on Christ’s bodily sufferings during the Passion, ascetic practices that commemorated this suffering in some way came to the forefront of devotional culture, while others, perhaps including martial asceticism, receded into the background.

Katherine Allen Smith, “Saints in Shining Armor: Martial Asceticism and Masculine Models of Sanctity, ca. 1050- 1250,” Speculum (2008)

In the earliest monastic communities, monks described themselves as milites Christi and exhorted those who chose lives of prayer and ascetic privation to protect themselves against carnal temptations and demonic assaults through use of spiritual armor. When patristic writers like Tertullian, Cassian, and invoked the armatura Dei, it was typically in connection with the heroism martyrs or the struggles of the desert fathers, and early exegetes glossed descriptions of the spiritual soldier’s arms as references to the challenges of monastic life. In the early Celtic tradition holy men girded themselves with armor through the recitation of special prayers, or Loricae, litanies invoking protection for an individual’s soul and body against demonic attacks. But undoubtedly the most famous spiritual soldier of the early church was the fourth-century Roman soldier-turned-bishop Martin of Tours, whose declaration because “I am a soldier of Christ, I am not allowed to fight” would have familiar to later churchmen through the highly influential Vita Martini by Sulpicius Severus. Not only saints but monks and the clergy more generally were considered milites Christi in the early Middle Ages; Pope Gregory I (r. 590-604) the term as a synonym for priests, and every novice who studied the Rule Benedict knew the master had envisioned life in the cloister as a kind of service and the cenobitic community as a divine militia. […]

As several scholars have noted, a similar martial ethos permeates contemporary Cluniac texts, as the early-tenth-century vita of Gerald of Aurillac by Odo of Cluny. In her reading of Cluniac liturgical performance as a form of spiritual warfare, Barbara Rosenwein memorably characterized the life of monks at Cluny in this period “ritualized re-enactment[s] of the life of the knight,” in which battles against devil satisfied the aggressive impulses that these men, had they remained world, would have channeled into temporal warfare.

Katherine Allen Smith, “Saints in Shining Armor: Martial Asceticism and Masculine Models of Sanctity, ca. 1050- 1250,” Speculum (2008)

Within the newly reformed society envisioned by reforming popes like Leo IX (r. 1049-54), Gregory VII (r. 1073-85), and their successors, the values of celibacy and passivity were imposed on priests as well as monks, who were banned from bearing weapons, participating in warfare, and engaging in sexual relations with women. Even monks’ traditional monopoly on spiritual warfare came under attack, as after 1050 the phrase miles Christi, used since late antiquity primarily in monastic contexts, came increasingly to refer to lay warriors who fought to defend the interests of the church. Nevertheless, monks continued to describe themselves as an order of spiritual warriors and to describe daily rituals like prayer and the performance of Mass as battles. Monastic hagiographers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries also began to celebrate saintly loricati, holy men who stood for a new current of martial asceticism, in greater numbers than ever before.

Katherine Allen Smith, “Saints in Shining Armor: Martial Asceticism and Masculine Models of Sanctity, ca. 1050- 1250,” Speculum (2008)

Agriculture was sunk to a low ebb at the decadence of the Roman Empire. Marshes covered once fertile fields, and the men who should have tilled the land spurned the plow as degrading. The monks left their cells and their prayers to dig ditches and plow fields. The effort was magical. Men once more turned back to a noble but despised industry, and peace and plenty supplanted war and poverty. So well recognized were the blessings they brought, that an old German proverb among the peasants runs, ‘It is good to live under the crozier.’ They ennobled manual labor, which, in a degenerate Roman world, had been performed exclusively by slaves, and among the barbarians by women. For the monks it is no exaggeration to say that the cultivation of the soil was like an immense alms spread over a whole country. The abbots and superiors set the example, and stripping off their sacerdotal robes, toiled as common laborers. Like the good parson whom Chaucer portrays in the prologue to the “Canterbury Tales”:

“‘This noble ensample unto his scheep he gaf That first he wroughte and after that he taughte.’

When a Papal messenger came in haste to consult the Abbot Equutius on important matters of the Church, he was not to be found anywhere, but was finally discovered in the valley cutting hay. Under such guidance and such example the monks upheld and taught everywhere the dignity of labor, first, by consecrating to agriculture the energy and intelligent activity of freemen often of high birth, and clothed with the double authority of the priesthood and of hereditary nobility, and, second, by associating under the Benedictine habit sons of kings, princes, and nobles with the rudest labors of peasants and serfs.”

Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)

To an extent which is still not fully appreciated, the drive for social justice in the past decade has been a metaphor, in the lives of many of those participating in it, for their own sexual liberation. It was in radical political circles that sometimes militant forms of transgressive sexual behavior were most fully accepted and even applauded. Many religious who began convinced that racial justice or war was the gravest moral problem of the age ended by placing their own vows of chastity in that central place. […] Many priests and religious, after sojourns in the fields of social concern, found suitable spouses for themselves and retired to the suburbs. It is especially ironic that countless “radical” Catholics have chosen both to support the sexual revolution and to attack the consumer society, without apparently appreciating how the former grows naturally out of the latter.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

It is one of the choicer ironies of the postconciliar era that, as nuns seek to become priests, priests get married, and married people get divorced in even greater numbers. Each group regards its own “need” – for priesthood, for marriage, for sanctioned divorce – as one whose fulfillment will quiet the deep dissatisfaction which make it unhappy in its present state of life. Each thinks its salvation lies just over the horizon; none appears to reflect on whether its restlessness has roots deeper than the vocational conditions which trouble it.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

The inevitable failure of much postconciliar “reform” could have been predicted solely on the basis of the use of the world itself. Classically, in the Church, “reform” has meant a recalling of believers to a stricter and more demanding kind of discipleship. The men and women honored with the name of “reformers” in religious life preached revitalization through closer adherence to the original spirit and rules of the community, often in the face of entrenched worldliness and lay customs. Reformers like St. Teresa of Avila encountered resistance and opposition primarily from contemporaries who, being comfortable within a permissive ambience, felt threatened by the demand that they return to a stricter way of life.

Conditions fairly common in the religious life of today – the ignoring of cloister, the abandonment of the prescribed habit, secular occupations, enjoyment of worldly amusements, sexual adventures – were precisely the conditions which the great reformers of the past found intolerable, and against which they inveighed ceaselessly.”

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

It was not merely the inconveniences of religious life – the possibly uncomfortable clothes, celibacy, obedience to rules – which understandably rankled. It was in fact the whole special character of the religious identity. The religious habit was discarded not simply because it was out of date or unfunctional but because of its symbolism, its marking the wearer as an ambassador of God in the world, a responsibility the wearer no longer wished to discharge. […]

Numerous priests and religious announced, during the postconciliar crisis, that they no longer wished to play a special role, that the burdens of living up to what the Church expected of them were now intolerable. Humanly such feelings were quite understandable. Yet unnoticed was an implication of the most profound theological significance – no longer was the religious vocation treated as a call from God that might or might not coincide with the individual’s own wishes. The possibility that God might will certain people to assume tasks they would rather shirk was implicitly denied. The entire Judaeo-Christian understanding of the ways in which God deals with man was being silently rejected.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

There were certain abbeys, especially in England, that took the greatest care not to clear the country of all trees. It is related of Alexander, the first abbot of Kirkstall, that, forseeing the necessities of the future, he forbade the cutting down of the vast forest he had acquired by divine protection, and preferred to purchase elsewhere the timber he required in erecting his large buildings. The monks of Pipwel in Northampton did not cease to plant trees in their forests and were said to watch over them as a mother over an only child. For their own private necessities they made use of dead, dry wood and reeds.

As a rule, the monks took great care in the cultivation of their land to conform to the laws of climate, soil and locality. In the north they devoted themselves especially to the raising of cattle, and in these countries the greatest privileges that could be given them were woods and the right to allow the swine to wander in them. In other countries they occupied themselves in the cultivation of fruit trees, the improvement of which was their work. It was the celebrated nursery of Chartreuse of Paris that up to the epoch of the Revolution furnished fruit trees to almost the whole of France, and the remembrance of their labors still lives in the name of certain delicious fruits, such as the doyenne and bon chretien pears. The finest orchards and vineyards belonged to the monasteries. All the chronicles speak of the cultivation of Mt. Menzing in the canton of Zug, which produced abundantly wheat and fruits and particularly nuts. The friendly relations existing between the monasteries, the interchange of visits between the monks of the different monasteries, were of great advantage, for foreign plants and fruits were exchanged and cultivated.

The monks were the first to devise tools for gardening. They had calendars in which were set down all that experience had taught them respecting the breeding of cattle, the sowing of land, the harvesting of crops and every kind of plantation. William of Malmesbury boasts of the fertility of the valley of Gloucester in wheat, in fruits and in vineyards.

Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)