The early centuries in the history of Christian asceticism, and of monasticism to which it gave rise, invite a short and accessible overview. The present article aims to supply this. It relies on a very large sampling of texts, mostly hagiographic. As ascetics are there to be seen described by contemporaries and near-contemporaries, they share many traits which can be grouped under principal headings and frequency of mention. A statistical profile emerges, presented under numerous headings and totals which in turn indicates the ascetics’ most salient aims and acts, and helps to explain the course of development of their institutions. The findings challenge a still-famous and almost universally accepted overview offered by Peter Brown (1971). This the present article seeks to replace at the outset, through calling in question Brown’s methodological assumptions, and second, in its closing pages, through challenging Brown’s picture of the holy man in other, more factual points.
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