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  • Adrian J. Boas

On a Manifestation of Monastic Poverty


Port St Symeon sgraffito bowl and Cypriot sgraffito bowl (13th century) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Poverty as an ideal is not unique to Christian monasticism. It is found in the teachings of the Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus and appears also in the ascetic traditions of other religions. But it is an early manifestation in Christianity. Already in the third century AD the apologist Marcus Minucius Felix, wrote:


Further, as to the charge that most of us are paupers, this is no shame, but our glory; for as the mind is enervated by luxury, so it is strengthened by frugality. And yet who can be poor if he wants nothing, if he does not long for what is another's, if he is rich in the sight of God? That man rather is poor who, though he has great possessions, desires more.*


Poverty was a fundamental precept in Benedictine monasticism. It was expressed in a lack of personal possessions (all property was of communal ownership), and in restrictions in dress and meals. Asceticism became a central feature in the rules of subsequent monastic foundations, and the military orders established in the Latin East also followed this doctrine. It was prominent in their rules, the origins of which lay in the Regula Sancti Benedicti. The Templars, the first military order foundation, adapted their rule from that of the Cistercians.** It was drawn up under the influence of Bernard of Clairvaux at the Council of Troyes in 1129 and it included numerous restrictions against any form of excess, particularly in dress, such as prohibiting the wearing of clothing with fur or other finery, pointed shoes and shoelaces, and the use of ornate bridles, stirrups, and spurs. The Hospitallers and Teutonic brothers followed suit.


A manifestation of the monastic poverty observed by the military orders can perhaps be found among the finds from archaeological sites. By the thirteenth century the production of ceramic vessels in the Arab world and parts of the Mediterranean basin was at its peak and represented a high point in medieval aesthetics and technological achievement. The Latin settlers in the crusader states, like their non-Frankish neighbours were in possession of a wide range of beautiful glazed and decorated vessels, tableware mostly comprising of bowls and jugs, that despite their opulent appearance were not regarded as items of luxury. Indeed, they were not beyond the means of the average Frankish household, as witnesses their presence in virtually every domestic context, even those of the most humble nature. However, among the finds from military order sites in the kingdom of Jerusalem, are certain vessels that display no such finery, entirely lack decoration and are purely utilitarian. First observed in large quantities among the finds from the Hospital of St John in Akko, and, from petrographic and chemical analysis identified as locally made, they consist mainly of small hemispherical bowls, and these have been referred to in publications as "Acre bowls".*** Similar vessels have been found in other military order sites such as the group illustrated below from the Teutonic hospital in Acre. Two possible explanations may be given for the presence of this type of vessel in large quantities at military order sites. One is that they were intended for the use of pilgrims residing in the hospices and patients in the hospitals of these institutions. The other, and perhaps more probable explanation is that they were intended for use of the brothers of the orders. As such, they would be an expression of their abstinence from luxury, particularly as they so conspicuously contrasted with the type of vessels used by the secular population.

Acre bowls from the German hospital. Photograph Buki Boaz

* Marcus Minucius Felix, The Octavius, trans. J.H. Freece, New York, 1919, p. 92.

** J.M. Upton Ward, trans., The Rule of the Templars, The French Text of the Rule of the Order of the Knights Templar, Woodbridge, 2002.

*** M. Avissar and E.J. Stern, Pottery of the Crusader, Ayyubid, and Mamluk Periods in Israel, IAA Reports 26, Jerusalem, 2005, pp. 82-3; E.J. Stern, 'Akko I. The 1991-1998 Excavations The Crusader-Period Pottery, IAA Reports 51/1, Jerusalem, 2012, vol. 1, p. 34-8, vol. 2, pp. 12-16.




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