Dr. Roberto Alciati


Ehemaliger Fellow

Fellow am Max-Weber-Kolleg
von September 2016 bis August 2017



Ars Ascetica from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, 200-900 CE

Aim of my current project is to take up an old theme of research in the study of religion, and in particularly of the history of Christianity: asceticism. The aspiration is to set a new standard in terms of selection of available sources and selection of methods not commonly used in conversation with each other. This process should drive to a novel perspective for conceptualizing and framing an astounding phenomenon, which is still waiting for its reassessment.

By tradition, asceticism has constituted a stock theme of great interest in religious studies, anthropology, sociology, and theology, but the various ascetic traditions have rarely been interpreted from a large and multi-disciplinary viewpoint. Moreover, many of the histories and critical treatments have assumed that the ascetic within a particular religious or cultural tradition was simple in character, and most have respected the artificially designated boundaries between particular religious systems or cultures – that is, “Christian”, “Jewish” or “Greek”.

Therefore, the first goal is to find a remedy for this (misleading) approach by orientating any theorizing act about asceticism beyond the discursive bounds of the traditional fields. In this manner, we shall bridge a traditional gap in scholarship, but at the same time add a novel perspective that has not previously been adopted in studying asceticism.

Under this theoretical umbrella, the goal is not to offer a survey or catalogue of the forms of the ascetic life from the 3rd to the 10th century of the Common Era, but, on the contrary, to enucleate the principal characteristics of this form of life and the over-imposed historical debate – from late antiquity onwards.

This will be possible by following these progressive steps: 1) Dismissing crypto-theological methods and agendas through a study of the academic research on asceticism. This preliminary reconstruction will be done by focusing on a couple of marginal – and almost totally neglected – German scholars: Franz Overbeck (1837-1905) and Erik Peterson (1890-1960). Both faced the mainstream idea of asceticism imposed, i.e. by Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). An analysis of their (significant) unpublished or teaching texts will be a good case study to test the idea of resistance against the powerful academic-high ecclesiastical interest. 2) Taking into consideration the fact that what we know about ancient asceticism is always a discourse about asceticism. The second step deals properly with ascetic texts, or sources, which should be read not with the traditional ‘textual analysis’ but as proofs and signs of some dynamics of human interaction: power relations, negotiations of differences, dominance, the hierarchialization and rehierarchialization of values, and so forth. This means to come to an understanding of asceticism not as text-messages, but as rhetorical formations and textualizations of social formations and orientations. The studying of ancient monasticism is primarily the study of these declaratory processes that led to the invention of a past monastic unit or canon. 3) The underestimated role of the Carolingian correctio. The third point refers to another level of hierarchialization. What we know about asceticism in late antiquity has been canonized by contemporary authors and then by the learned scholars of the last decades. But there is also another selection, usually underestimated: the Carolingian correctio. This event is exactly what makes us unable to understand a certain asynchrony between the production of some ascetic texts and the implementation of what we could call ‘normative observance’.