Autism and monasteries

A/artist Roundtable

11 Jul 2022

On Monday the 11th of July we gathered again for a dinner and discussion round at Mediamatic. This time, the topic of discussion was what we can learn from monasteries as the earliest form of assisted living. Have autistic people historically been drawn to monasteries, and if so, why? Was medieval abbess and multitalent Hildegard von Bingen autistic? And do we want to create an art-monastery? 

Below you can find a report about what we discussed. 


Depiction of Hildegard of Bingen visions - Hildegard von Bingen

Do we want to create an art monastery? 

Discussion round about monasteries, Hildegard von Bingen, and autism 

Monasteries are arguably one of the earliest forms of assisted living. For this discussion round, the A/Artist team at Mediamatic read up on the (historic) connections between autism and the monastic life, including Hildegard von Bingen as a possible autistic role model. Martin Butler joined us online to share the knowledge he accumulated about Hildegard and medieval monasticism during his research for the Sin Eaters dinners. 

(Catholic) Church - the original entertainers 

We recognised that the Catholic Church could be called the original performance artists, specialised in experience design and experts at wowing audiences. Willem pointed out an example: the casket of Santa Lucia, stored in Venice, which is regularly hoisted up during church services. 

Other artists present agreed with this. One person added that they got into theatre through attending mass as a child.

Abbey St. Benedictusberg 

We talked about the Dutch monastery St. Benedictusberg, which was designed by the famous monk and architect Dom Hans van der Laan, and looked at a few photos. The architecture and consistency of the monastery are impressive. Dom van der Laan designed not only the building, but also the clothes, font of the lettering, and other aspects of the monastery himself. We also watched a video of the monks chanting together in order to get a better impression of the place. 

The question of ownership in monasteries 

Martin brought up the question of ownership. As a monk, it is a fundamental expectation that you  give up your worldly possessions in exchange for spiritual goods. You don’t have your own house, or any objects. In our capitalist modern society, people often identify themselves by the things they buy and accumulate. Many autistic people have a habit of collecting or even hoarding certain objects - so how would the two fit together? 

Another artist rephrased the question: Could we give up materialism if we were to live in a monastery? 

Someone mentioned that there are things they would have a lot of trouble giving up, for example their computer. Others disagreed and stressed that monks also have computers nowadays. 

Someone else brought up that to him, independence and agency are important as an autistic person and artist. When you own no worldly goods, that puts you in a position of complete dependency on your institution and community, which can also be a frightening thing.

Why are we interested in the monastery as a model? 

We then moved on to a crucial question: why are we connecting the topics of monasteries and autism in the first place?

Willem explained that we are interested in the notion of ascesis: refraining from worldly possessions, and using the monastery as a shield from the constant demands and desires of the the outside world imposes on you in order to focus on a simpler communal life. 

Martin explained that historically, people joined monasteries in order to systematically uphold power structures in families. To simplify, the idea was that the first child took the title, the second child joined the army, and the third child was sent to a monastery, so that the family could exert influence in all three realms. We noted that this type of power structure is not only present in Western Christian societies, but also in many other cultures around the globe. 

However, this part of the history of monasteries is of less interest to our own project. What we are more interested in is the fact that monasteries have historically been spaces where people lived and worked together somewhat removed from the rest of society, but nonetheless centres of cultural and scientific development.  

Martin agreed with this, and tied it back to the question of ownership. “Yes, you give away your possessions, but in exchange you get the chance to learn, to think, to write.“ 

Who makes the rules? 

Willem shared his experience with running a squatted completely non-hierarchical art-space in Amsterdam in the 80s, noting that they ultimately failed due to internal disagreements. The lesson learned, he explained, was that it is important to delegate leaders as mediators with the outside world, also in order to relieve the rest of the community from that responsibility and leave freedom for other thoughts and activities. 

So do we have to follow existing rules, another artist asked, or could we make up our own rules? 

Is a monastery like a wellness centre? 

When you take away the no-ownership aspect, Martin said, then what is the difference between a monastery and a wellness centre? Willem suggested that the difference is commitment. While a wellness centre is in that respect much like a supermarket - you can come and go as you like - a monastery comes with the expectation that you are committed to stay and contribute to the communal life for a longer while. 

What, then, is the difference between art residency and a monastery? We agreed that a monastery is a more integrated concept, which can includes communal activities and can consist of many different spaces, such as a garden, a kitchen, a library, and so on. It could also have an independent financial system. 

The central question that emerged is this: how can neurodiverse people learn to live and work together and take better care of themselves? 

Are people on the spectrum community-oriented or individualist? 

One of the artists present asked the group whether we think autistic people are more community-minded or more individualist. 

The group agreed that as a general observation, people on the spectrum tend to communicate easily with other neurodiverse people, although it is of course not really something you can generalise. However, many misunderstandings that can happen between an autistic and a neurotypical person would not happen between two autistic people. Among people on the spectrum, then, a community-oriented mindset would not be difficult to imagine. 

Do autistic people “believe less“? 

Certain research findings show that autistic people tend to be less religious than neurotypical people. The autistic monastery would not be entered around religion, but instead around other ideals and principles - such as, for instance, a commitment to create art. 

Another artist wondered whether it could be true that autistic people “believe less“ in general, not just in the context of religion. The group agreed that this might be the case, since autistic people tend to questions more instead of taking things for granted. Willem shared the observation that autistic people often only believe in what they understand themselves, rather than taking other people’s word for it.

Was Hildegard von Bingen autistic? 

Anna Lina gave a short presentation about the article “Ruminations on Hildegard von Bingen and autism“ by Patricia Ranft.

This article cites historical sources to make an argument for the possibility that Hildegard was herself autistic, and that the monastic environment was ideal for her to unfold her full potential. It paints a picture of Hildegard as a socially isolated child who had trouble learning to speak, but proceeded to become the star pupil and later the leader of her monastery, writing influential scientific treatises, composing music, inventing her own language and drawing in public attention with her vivid visions. 

You can find a full summary of the article here. 

After the presentation, we asked our Hildegard expert Martin for his comments and insights. 

What to add? Hildegard’s power and influence 

Martin stressed that Hildegard was not only a nun, and artist, and a writer, but that she was also the most powerful woman in northern Europe during her lifetime. He explained that she gained this influence by only letting women from rich families, who came with money and land, join her monastery. “You could call her an empire builder“, Martin said, “a hardcore liberal capitalist.“

But what was she trying to achieve with this power? Martin suggested that Hildegard used her influence to separate herself from the male-run monastic system and to build a new monastery for herself and her women. This new monastery was famous and successful because of Hildegard’s visions - “She was a pop star in the visionary world!“.

What did Martin think of the paper’s thesis that Hildegard could have been autistic? “I don’t know her, never met her“, he said, also adding that he does not know enough about autism to make any claims. But he stressed that she was an exceptional and highly competent woman, who created a space that allowed herself and the women around her to excel at what they did.

Another artist mentioned that, if we can make any such claim about Hildegard, she would be a perfect example to prove that the stereotypical autistic person does not exist.

Hildegard as a role model 

Willem summarised that the paper sketches a picture of a young girl and woman who did not play along with the system she was born into. Instead, she was able to understand the structures of the system in a way that allowed her to take the lead after decades of learning and developing herself. 

She was arguably very good at understanding structures and using them to her advantage, for example by drawing in rich girls and taking over their money and land as well as benefitting from the protection of their families. This way, she created a circle of power around herself, something that ultimately allowed her to become the powerhouse she was, writing books that are still read a thousand years later, composing the first ever opera and developing this place where she connected culture and science which is still remembered today, which really is a magnificent and rare achievement. 

And at the same time she is described as isolated from other children, non-verbal into her teens, stubborn and idiosyncratic - traits which lead her parents to the decision to send her into the monastery. This monastery proved to be the perfect environment for her to develop and eventually build an empire. Therefore, Hildegard’s success was in equal parts determined by her background, coming from a wealthy family which could afford to send her into the care of the monastery, as well as her own extraordinary predisposition. 

Martin pointed out that what Hildegard did was build an environment which allowed herself and her women to grow. “A place where she could learn freely!“, another artist concisely summarised it. This, of course, is very interesting to us - how do you build an environment in which you can learn freely? 

Was Hildegard queer? 

Martin added that one of the big gifts Hildegard gave to her community of women was that she allowed for non-procreation, the freedom not to have children, an option not many women had during her time. The absence of the social responsibilities left space for developing their own curiosities and ambitions. 

“Was Hildegard queer?“, Willem asked, and Martin didn’t hesitate long before saying “Yes, I think so.“ The reason for this quick response is a depiction of Hildegard at her old monastery in Bingen, which shows her together with her scribe and another female companion behind her, being “suggestively intimate“. 

What followed was a short discussion about whether monasteries could also have been queer spaces throughout history. 

The sin of retro-diagnosis

Of course, we can not say with any certainty whether or not Hildegard von Bingen was actually autistic. Retro-diagnosis can be a dangerous practice, and as Martin pointed out earlier, none of us know Hildegard personally. We recognised that the point of the article is not to judge or diagnose, but simply to illuminate correlations and possibilities, which is why it is also aptly titled “Ruminations“. You can read more about retro-diagnosis [in this blogpost.]

What shape could our monastery take?

One of the artists present shared that while he used to be attracted to co-living models in the past, he is now more in favour of independent living because of the self-determinate freedom it allows for. Living in a commune comes with committing to your living space as your main community, which can be a frightening idea. 

What is the difference between a monastery and a shared living space, then?, someone asked, since the distinction is in fact blurry. A monastery goes further than shared living, since it determines the structure of your daily life, someone suggested. 

Another artist argued that while this could be the case, we were still talking only about the concept of a monastery - the exact rules and daily structures would be completely up to us to determine.  

Someone else pointed out that what makes monastic life attractive for autistic people might be precisely that it is strictly structured, allowing for a near complete absence of chaos and providing a quiet and peaceful environment. But of course, this doesn’t appeal to all autistic people - it can not, and doesn’t have to be, for everyone. 

Make it a design challenge 

Willem suggested that we should make imagining our possible monastery a design challenge, creating designs for three different monasteries which include the architecture, activities, reasons to join it, etcetera. Do you expect to grow old there, or do you just live there for a short period? Do we want a library, a garden, a choir, uniforms? 

One of the artists present pointed out that while we focused mainly on the freedom of creating our own concept for a monastery, for him the notion of monasteries has a different connotation: one of extreme limits and restrictions. 

Someone else mentioned that structure is also an instrument to allow for more freedom, since it takes away many daily decisions and allows for more space to concentrate and explore.

To this, the artist replied that what would be most important to him is the freedom to leave, to “rage-quit“. Of course, this is not possible in traditional monasteries, where you entered into a contract with God. For our own monastery, however, such a contract would not exist. 

So who decides the rules of a monastery - the founder? Traditionally, the answer would be “yes“. This creates a power imbalance, and there remains the question whether the monastery should have the potential to evolve, or whether it is a system hammered shut once it’s been put into place. 

Again, this depends on everyone’s ideal vision of a monastery. Does your utopia include freedom, or does it not? This sort of question is exactly why it would be interesting to make multiple different design sketches of the ideal monastery. 

What is the difference between an art centre and a monastery? 

What, finally, is the difference between an art centre and a monastery? At Mediamatic we also engage in communal tasks such as cooking, gardening and cleaning as a team, and there is a joint mission centred around art. Therefore, it seemed to me that Mediamatic is already well on its way to becoming an art monastery, using the loose definitions of a monastery which came up throughout the discussion. 

The essential question 

At the end of the discussion, one of the artists present summarised the essential question: How could we create an environment for neurodiverse people to thrive in, similar to the environment that Hildegard von Bingen created for herself and the women around her?