A love of work: Patricia Ranft speaks on the theology of work in the medieval era
Rare is the scholar whose research, personal conduct and spirituality inform each other. Patricia Ranft, the inaugural Falvey Memorial Library Visiting Scholar speaker, surely is such a historian. Her Christian spirituality echoed in the gracious appreciation she expressed for Villanova University welcoming her as an unaffiliated scholar.
Dr. Ranft, a professor emeritus from Central Michigan University, presented a talk on April 24 on her most recent book, The Theology of Work: Peter Damian and the Medieval Religious Renewal Movement. At first glance, this book is a departure for a historian who has written four books and numerous articles dealing with women in the medieval and early modern Christian tradition.
In reality, it is a return to first loves, both aesthetic and intellectual. As a graduate student, Dr. Ranft’s interest in the history of work was sparked in a class taught by Roman Catholic theologian Gregory Baum on socialist theology, where she studied Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Laborem Exercens.
Her curiosity about Peter Damian grew out of her master’s thesis research. Dr. Ranft, struck by the contrasting views of Damian, noted, “He was so maligned by modern scholars, yet Dante makes him the ideal medieval man.” Her appreciation for Damian was sustained by the beauty of his writing, especially his treatise "The Lord be with You."
In Peter Damian, an influential 11th century Benedictine monk, Dr. Ranft locates the origin of the Christian contribution to the modern idea of work, usually attributed to secular theorists. In pre-modern times, work was perceived as punitive and manual labor only suited for the base lower classes. Damian wedded the idea that prophetic eschatology required the individual to prepare or work to be ready for final judgment and the humanistic idea that witness was sanctifying to both the individual and community. Both intellectual and manual labor were a means to strive for imitatio Christi (the imitation of Christ).
Damian championed his ideas to both secular and ecclesiastical leaders, and his thought was disseminated through the canonical life, the Cistercians and the mendicants. Dr. Ranft agreed with one attendee’s comment that Damian’s theology of work was "conceptually much broader" than the Protestant work ethic.
Dr. Ranft is hopeful that her work will open up new avenues for intellectual labor, perhaps resulting in a reinterpretation of the Franciscan conflict over ownership of property, Elizabethan poor laws and early modern guilds and fraternities.
Contributed by Linda Hauck; photograph by Natalie Tomasco