Harsh asceticism, including ritual self-mortification, remains one of the most troubling and least understood aspects of monastic life in the Later Middle Ages. The nuns whose austere lives are celebrated in spiritual biographies and autobiographies in the Order of Preachers were long dismissed by traditional scholars as hysterics or inferior mimics of true mysticism. Some recent feminist studies either gloss over asceticism or portray its practitioners as traumatized victims of patriarchal oppression. Traditionalists and progressives seem to agree: extreme asceticism is best understood as pathetic or even pathological behavior. David Tinsley seeks to temper this view by exploring late-medieval asceticism on its own terms. Building on the work of Caroline Walker Bynum, Peter Dinzelbacher, and Jeffrey Hamburger, Tinsley analyzes the ascetic mentalities of Dominican convent culture in the 14th century, including the sources the nuns read, the famous ascetics they venerated, and their most common rituals and practices. The key question is how these nuns could see self-imposed suffering as so crucial to shaping the questing soul's journey to God.
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