Although the Hermits of the Early Church always seem to be assumed to have been men – as in references to the “Desert Fathers” – there was a significant population of eremitical women – the “Desert Mothers” – until relatively recently largely ignored in scholarly writing.
“The Desert Mothers were female Christian ascetics living in the desert of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. They typically lived in the monastic communities that began forming during that time, though sometimes they lived as hermits. Other women from that era who influenced the early ascetic or monastic tradition while living outside the desert are also described as Desert Mothers.
The Desert Fathers are much more well known because most the early Christian texts were written or compiled by men. There are no writings directly attributed to the Desert Mothers—the occasional stories about them come from the early Desert Fathers and their biographers. The Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, includes forty-seven sayings that are actually attributed to the Desert Mothers. There are several chapters dedicated to the Desert Mothers in the Lausiac History by Palladius, who mentions 2,975 women living in the desert. Other sources include the various stories told over the years about the lives of saints of that era, traditionally called vitae (“life”). The lives of twelve female desert saints are described in Book I of the so-called Vitae Patrum (Lives of the Fathers).”
An excellent account of the emergence of female Hermits in the early Church is found at http://www.christianhistoryproject.org/the-fall-of-the-western-roman-empire/arianism/hermits/
“The fourth-century persecution of Athanasius and the Christians at Alexandria dramatically underlines the phenomenon of “holy virgins” or “holy women.” Savagely abused during the vicious Arian conflicts, these dedicated women were playing an increasingly significant role in the spiritual life of the church. Christian care for and recognition of women goes back to apostolic times, and reverence for consecrated virginity emerged early. By the fifth century, as barbarian invasions disrupted the west and worldliness corrupted the faith in the east, this idea captivated more and more young women–just as thousands of men were joining monasteries.
Tertullian, in the second century, praised female virginity as an imitation of Christ, notes Jesuit historian James A. Mohler (“The Heresy of Monasticism”, New York, 1971), and virgins took a prominent part in liturgical processions. In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage placed them in honor behind only the martyrs. Indeed, notes British historian Joan M. Petersen in “Handmaids of the Lord” (Kalamazoo, 1996), female virginity seemed to acquire such exaggerated esteem as to admit scarcely any justification for marriage. “I praise marriage, I praise wedlock,”wrote Jerome in the fourth century, in a famously controversial letter to his disciple, the virgin Julia Eustochium, “but only because they produce virgins.”
However, this implied that the married state, if not actively sinful, was at best second-rate. Did it not cast doubt, some people wondered, on the essential goodness of God’s creation? The question came to a head in the mid-fourth century, at the Council of Gangra in Paphlagonia in central Turkey, after one bishop actually denounced marriage as sinful. The council passed twenty canons to repudiate him, not only reaffirming the goodness of sex within marriage, but also anathematizing anyone who embraced virginity solely because he or she abhorred marriage. It further denounced any virgin who regarded the married state “arrogantly,” or any woman who left a marriage because she abhorred the married state itself.
Similarly, the so-called Apostolic Canons, a series of eighty-five church laws written in the fourth century, and claiming to go back to the teaching of the apostles, spoke out categorically on the essential goodness of sex within marriage. For example, Canon 51 reads: “If any bishop, presbyter or deacon, or any one of the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or flesh, or wine, not by way of religious restraint, but as abhorring them, forgetting that God made all things very good, and that he made man male and female, and blaspheming the work of creation, let him be corrected, or else be deposed and cast out of the church. In like manner a layman.” The Apostolic Canons would become the basis of the church’s canon law.
Female asceticism, whether solitary or monastic, virginal or simply celibate, nonetheless quickly spread through the Middle East, Europe, and eventually the world. The most powerful inspiration behind it, scholar Petersen suggests, was surely the same as that of male ascetics. Christ’s call is always for total commitment. With Christianity an accepted state religion, the especially devout may have seen the ordinary, everyday church as requiring of them too little sacrifice. Conscious of the standard set by the martyrs only a generation or so earlier, they yearned for a similarly heroic expression of their devotion to Jesus Christ.
At first, many such women probably lived an ascetic life at home, dressing simply, eating frugally, following a demanding prayer rule, and joining with like-minded friends within church congregations. But some came to believe, writes the Benedictine nun Laura Swan in “The Forgotten Desert Mothers” (New York, 2001), that achievement of inner peace was impossible amidst the pressures and crowding of city life. They felt they must abandon whatever else possessed their mind and heart, and seek God in the immense solitude of the desert.
Notable among these female solitaries is Mary of Egypt, subject of many popular legends and highly regarded in the Orthodox Church as an exemplar of extreme sin, followed by extreme repentance. Mary was no virgin.
To the contrary, according to seventh-century sources, Mary of Egypt was a notorious prostitute in fifth-century Alexandria, but while plying her trade among pilgrims to Jerusalem, she was violently stricken with remorse on the threshold of the Holy Sepulchre. She then disappeared into the wilderness beyond the Jordan River to expiate her sins, reportedly seeing no one for the next forty-seven years. At last, a priest-monk named Zosimus, chancing to encounter the practically skeletal woman, gave her communion. She asked him to return a year later; complying, he found and buried her body.
“Mary of Egypt” (c.1520-30) by Quentin Massys (c.1466-1530)
Among female desert dwellers, there soon appeared the figure of the amma (Aramaic for mother, equivalent to abba, father): a lone-woman ascetic tutoring disciples one by one in the life of solitude with God. As with their male counterparts, however, groups of female hermits took to gathering on occasion, and desert convents began to form.
They proliferated rapidly. Palladius, a much-traveled historian of fourth-century monasticism, encountered one in the Thebaid region on the Upper Nile, where some four hundred virgins followed a rule almost identical to that of the men’s monasteries. Smaller communities were housed in caves, ruins, family tombs, or on islands. Within a half-century, convents were opening all over Roman Europe, although those in the west tended to locate near cities for protection against barbarian attack.
“Thebaid” (c. 1410) by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)
They generally observed a communal rule regulating daily prayer (usually at eight stated hours between dawn and bedtime), Divine Liturgy, meals, and so on. Most expected their members to memorize the Psalter and diligently study the Scriptures. Work included weaving, gardening, household chores, and care of the sick and the aged. Personal possessions were limited to a few storage jars and books, plain clothing, and a sleeping mat. Some sisters slept on the ground with only a rough coverlet of goat’s hair. Wine was taken for medicinal purposes, and only in small amounts.
Jerome, who founded numerous monasteries and convents, set out firm rules for girls who aspired to a life of holy virginity, based to some extent upon the behavior expected of any respectable young Roman woman. They should remain with their mothers until they were professed, he said, and not frequent public places (including crowded churches) or walk with mincing steps, or exchange nods and winks with young men. Their dress should be unremarkable, neither too neat nor too careless. But they should also shun popular music and affected speech, should not seek vainglory either in almsgiving or devotional fervor, and should be cheerful when fasting. Nor should they associate with married women, but seek the company of women “whose faces are pale from fasting.”
Bathing was also discouraged, a proscription strange to the modern mind. But bathing was then a largely public activity; nearly all cities had warm “baths”somewhat like swimming pools, where nude men and women of all ages customarily bathed together. Judging by Christian denunciations, however, some of these may have sadly degenerated. They are described as being decorated with licentious paintings and lewd graffiti, and as being a major source of town gossip. Then, too, bathing was seen as a pleasurable activity, and therefore another opportunity for sacrifice. To go bathless became virtuous, a perception that was extended to clothing as well. “Dirty clothes,” observed Jerome, “betoken a clean mind.”
Meanwhile, the exhortations of the Council of Gangra notwithstanding, exaltation of virginity and of celibacy reached fever pitch. Some women became lone ascetics on their own property, often when very young. For example, a Roman girl named Aselia moved at the age of twelve into a cell on her family’s estate, venturing out thereafter only to attend church. A devout Gallic Christian called Monegund lived as a solitary on her family’s estate at Chartres, baking bread and growing vegetables to feed the poor.
Other Christians of wealth and aristocratic lineage founded monasteries. Olympias, a prominent widow at the court of Emperor Theodosius I, sold her entire estate to provide alms for the poor and to endow several monastic communities. A well-to-do couple named Paulinus and Theraisa, after the death of their child at eight days old, renounced further sexual intercourse. They founded a double monastery for men and women at Nola, near Naples.
Sometimes older couples, agreeing to part, would join separate monasteries. Such was the decision of Athanasia of Antioch and her husband, although their story had a different and curious ending. Twelve years later, meeting again on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they were reunited. Thereafter, they shared a cave, but adopted a strict rule of silence.
Monasteries centered on a single family became known as “domestic monasteries,” and those with both men and women as “dual.” Both proved to be somewhat dubious ventures. In the domestic institutions, family demands competed with communal demands. In the dual ones, sexual temptations led to frequent scandal, although examples of mixed communities with carefully separated quarters would continue, sometimes successfully, through medieval times.”
Earle, Mary C. (2007), “The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness”, Church Publishing, Inc.,
Forman, Mary (2005), “Praying with the Desert Mothers”, Liturgical Press,
King, Margot (1989), “The Desert Mothers”, Peregrina Publishing
Johnston, William M. (2000), “Desert Mothers”, “Encyclopedia of Monasticism”, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, pp. 373–374,
Palladius (1918), “The Lausiac History”, Translation by W. K. L. Clarke, Macmillan (online edition by Fordham University)
Swan, Laura (2001), “The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Darly Christian Women”, Paulist Press,