Stark, Rodney: "Upper Class Asceticism: Social Origins of Ascetic Movements and Medieval Saints" in Review of Religious Research, no. 45, no. 1, September 2003, p. 5-19.

Stark's provocative essay maintains that contrary to the opinion of social scientists, upper classes and not the poor embraced asceticism and poverty throughout the Christian Middle Ages and later. The contention that the social phenomena of transvaluation or deprivation was at work among the poor -- meaning that the poor made poverty a virtue from their own circumstances and necessity -- is false. No evidence supports this, while painstaking analysis of historical records shows that the wealthy populated the ranks of ascetics throughout history.

The situation exists even today, where the average attendee at Sunday religious services continues to be the privileged well-to-do, regardless of sectarian preference. The option for asceticism is similar.

It is the opportunity to choose poverty -- a choice not given to the poor -- that seems central to the appeal of asceticism. Fasting seems not to appeal to people who have often been hungry and privation in general fails to attract the poor. In contrast, it is frequently observed that wealth fails to satisfy many of those born into privilege and therefore they turn to various religious or even radical political alternatives.

Stark's representative historical examples (he specifically demurs from using a psychological approach) are Buddhism, Orphics and Pythagoreans, Essenes, Cathars, and Waldensians. The Buddha is presented by history as a prince, and the spread of Buddhism in China entailed the evolution of a priestly class of the educated. The ancient Greek sects cited followed ascetic practices and were associated with the writing of books. Recruits among the Essenes were expected to bring property to commingle with the community, and besides their ritual practices they composed complex and advanced theological commentaries reflecting their elite members. The leadership of the Cathars were perfecti -- celibates abstaining from flesh. A roster of all 1,1190 of the the perfecti exists, with 15 percent of them nobility, and many others of affluent families. Finally, the Waldensians were founded by a wealthy merchant named Waldo of Lyons, who renounced all his wealth and preached asceticism in the Lyon streets, soon attracting a large following that spread beyond France.

The Cathars and Waldensians came into conflict with Church authorities not because they led a proletarian or peasant subversion of doctrine. Heretical thinking came later. The motive of their asceticism was originally distrusted by a Church determined to be the sole arbitrator of pious practice, and so the charge of heresy would evolve from this antagonism.

Medieval Christian society consisted of authorities within the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the vast laity that included urban poor and peasants. Religious orders always functioned as what Stark calls the "Church of Piety," with potential for antagonism with the hierarchy. From this "church" came the pious wealthy and their allies, the wealthy orders.

The rest of the article presents the author's work quantifying the social origins of ascetic saints of Europe from 500 to 1500. Few such efforts have preceded his; Stark uses over a dozen sources, including standard almanacs such as Butler's The Lives of Saints. His criteria excludes obscure saints known only through hagiographical sources, and excludes saints only made so because of martyrdom, miracles, ecclesiastical position (such as bishop or pope), patrons, children, and scholars. Stark includes only truly ascetic saints.

The author considered nine variables confirmed by other research sources: sex, century, family background, saintly kin, church office, order, extreme degree of asceticism, eremitical status, and reported mystical phenomena. Four aspects of asceticism were considered, with a pool of 483 saints reflecting the percentages shown:

living within a religious order 87.8 percent
extremely ascetic 37.9
hermit or recluse 25.1
mystic 11.4

The category of extreme asceticism included over a third of those already deemed ascetic. Extreme asceticism refers to practices such as wearing a hair shirt, living on bread and water, sleep deprivation, continuous prayer.

But one of the most common forms of extreme asceticism was to limit human contact by becoming hermits or recluses. To gain solitude, hermits typically withdrew into the forest or the desert. Recluses, on the other had, achieved solitude by confining themselves in huts or cells (usually in or near a monastery or convent). I many instances, recluses actually had their cells walled-off and received food through a small opening.

The recluse mentioned by Stark is the anchorite or anchoress. It is interesting to see Stark's assessment of eremitism as an extreme in itself, however.

Lest it be thought that hermits and recluses were drawn mainly from among the ranks of socially maladjusted misanthropes or even the mentally ill, as is often claimed [referring to William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience], nearly 20 percent of those coded as hermits or recluses subsequently were called from their forests and cells to serve quite successfully as bishops, abbots, and abbesses. For example, St. Aigulf lived for many years as a hermit near Bourges, France before being called upon to serve as bishop of that city. He subsequently played a leading part in several Church councils. Many other hermits and recluses were asked to take such administrative posts, but managed to beg off. Still others wrote lucid works of scholarship or fine poetry. Clearly, then, in this era choosing solitude mainly reflected religious motives, not maladjustment: Solitude was regarded not only as a way to avoid worldly distractions.

The breakdown of asceticism criteria by gender shows that among 483 ascetic saints:

  male female
numbers: 337 146
living within a religious order 84.9 94.5
extremely ascetic 39.8 33.6
hermit or recluse 28.2 17.8
mystic 8.3 18.5

And the data supporting Stark's main thesis, that ascetic saints were overwhelmingly of the upper classes:

  Royalty Nobility Wealthy Lower Unknown
   male 13.1 55.2 17.2 5.3 9.2
   female 42.5 47.9 5.5 3.4 0.7
percentage of total 21.9 53 13.7 4.8 6.6






Royalty includes kings, queens, princes, and princesses. Nobility means dukes, counts, barons, earls, and their spouses and children. These classes represent 75 percent or three-fourths of the ascetic saints. Wealthy families were simply untitled landholders. Only one in twenty were from the lower classes.

Stark further breaks down family background to the asceticism criteria:

  Royalty Nobility Wealthy Lower TOTALS
numbers: 106 256 66 23 451
   in a religious order 96.2 85.2 87.9 78.3  
   extremely ascetic 35.8 34 53 34.8  
   hermit or recluse 20.8 23 33.3 21.7  
   mystic 6.6 10.2 10.6 39.1  
   another saint in
   the immediate family
30.2 18 4.5 0  










The intrigue results of the study show that ascetic saints come from upper-class family backgrounds. Updated to modern times, the study would show a decline in royal families but also a decline in asceticism among religious orders. The increased number of saints from lower class families would be the result of particular efforts to canonize them, though this trend too has been uneven. But that is for modern times.

Stark makes some important points:

To refute the deprivation thesis it is not necessary that asceticism, or other forms of religiousness, be an especially upper class phenomenon -- it is sufficient that class be of little or no significance. However, I incline to the view that the ascetic impulse is more prevalent among persons of privilege, sometimes reflecting guilt about having wealth, but more often stemming from the "discovery" that wealth is not fulfilling. Andrew Greeley pointed out to me that "it was only the nobility who had the time and opportunity to become saints" as the peasants were too busy trying to scratch out a living. Exactly! Hungry peasants are starving, not fasting. Deprivation is asceticism only when it is voluntary and that does tend to limit it to those with the privilege, even the burden, of choice.

Today, an upper class does not exist in the medieval sense of aristocracy -- only as wealth and celebrity. Asceticism has virtually disappeared. The modern analogy may be among political and spiritual radical youth of wealthy family backgrounds, who pursued and pursue modern equivalents of ascetic ideas (if not practice) through their advocacy, disenchantment with modern social values, or their embrace of religious and spiritual movements that still do offer ascetic values. But even now these ranks do not include the lower classes.