Monasticism and the'Protestant Ethic': Asceticism, Rationality and Wealth in the Medieval West

I. Silber

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The economic achievements of medieval monasticism have evoked the paradoxical connection between religious asceticism and capitalism central to Weber's famous analysis of the 'Protestant ethic'. It will be argued, however, that focusing on the resemblances to the 'Protestant Ethic' and/or capitalism makes for a partial and distorted picture of the monastic economy and does not render the full impact of monasticism upon the economic sphere of activity in the medieval West. The first section of this paper examines Weber's own perception of the monastic economy: recognizing its achievements and relative rationality, yet also refusing to see in these any real similitude to the 'Protestant ethic' or the announcement of the capitalistic breakthrough. The second section partly confirms Weber's perception by expanding upon ideological and institutional foundations of the monastic economy which further invalidate the analogy to either capitalism and/or the 'Protestant Ethic', albeit for reasons very different from those advanced by Weber. Shifting away from the overriding concern with economic rationality characteristic of previous discussions - and incidentally offering an altered perspective on the 'Protestant Ethic' itself - the third section focuses on monasticism's unintended and indirect contribution to the nascent autonomization of the economic sphere of activity, through the analysis of two ideological processes essentially: depersonification on the one hand, symbolic intensification on the other.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)103-123
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1993


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