Friendship and Community: The Monastic Experience, 350-1250

Apr 29, 2022
Gavin House
1220 E 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
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A master class with Brian Patrick McGuire (Roskilde University). Open to current graduate students, faculty, and advanced University of Chicago undergraduate students. Others interested in participating should contact us. Registrants will receive copies of the prepared reading.

Friendship has been apparent in our culture as a concern ever since the time of the Greeks. Today it is often ignored or taken for granted. Some readings of the Gospels would indicate that friendship is secondary. We are saved not because of our friendships but because we find how to love our enemies. For Augustine, the architect of friendship, converting to the Christian religion meant downsizing his friendships, even though he still maintained them. For the Desert Fathers, an abba is a father and not a friend, and for Benedict in his monastic way of life, one monk is never to defend another as a friend. The abbot is not to show preferences, but an exception is made for especially deserving monks.

In our age so permeated with sexual sensibility, the main concern in medieval life seems to have been fear of friendships in order to avoid sexual bonds, but the sources speak otherwise. Bonds of friendship in the cloister were considered dangerous not because of sex but because monks could form cliques and defy the position of the abbot. And yet, in spite of the fear of bonds that would upset the life of the cloister, central monastic figures of the early Middle Ages, such as Bede and Boniface, cultivated friendships and almost simultaneously, but independently of each other, coined the term, amicitia spiritalis.

What had been in Cicero’s time an alliance of two aristocratic men to further their ambitions now became an accepted aspect of monastic life. This opening to friendship appeared especially in the twelfth century among the Cistercians. Bernard of Clairvaux used a language of friendship and his monk Aelred of Rievaulx converted Cicero’s “On Friendship” into “On Spiritual Friendship.” And yet Aelred’s celebration of the language and experience of friendship did not last, and it is important to find what happened to spiritual friendship.



  • Cicero, On Friendship
  • The Rule of Saint Benedict, esp. chapters 2, 69 and 71
  • Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship (Cistercian Publications)
  • Brian Patrick McGuire, Friendship and Community: The Monastic Experience (Cornell University Press, 2010), especially ch. VII, “Aelred of Rievaulx and the Limits of Friendship”.