Asceticism

Religious asceticism played a large part in reconfiguring European culture after the fall of Rome. So much of Christian history flows from this ascetic philosophy of purity;and so many bodies were subsequently constrained, cleansed, or physically altered because of it—especially those of monks, nuns, and many other devout men and women. In order to appreciate the milieu of cleanliness in medieval and early modern Europe, we need at least some grasp of the seismic events that occurred in that crucial 500-year period of religious upheaval in the Late Empire. The basic outlines are fairly clear. There was a religious revolution in which the moral duty to 'know thyself' became infinitely more important than the secular hygienic duty to 'look after yourself'.1 As a result, the ideology of cleanliness was turned upside down and inside out. Judaeo-Christian asceticism insisted that the cleansing of the inner soul was absolutely imperative, whereas the cleansing of the outer body was a worldly distraction, and its ornamentation a positive sin. In effect the extreme religious devotion that was previously reserved for the sanctified few was now being urged by ascetics as daily practice for the masses.

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