Village Ascetics and the Origins of Early Egyptian Monasticism

An excellent paper challenging the traditional model of the origins of eremiticism and monasticism is “Μοναχοὶ Ἀποτακτικοί: Village Ascetics and the Origins of Early Egyptian Monasticism” by H. Carl Moerschbacher University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, Classical and Near Eastern Studies. It is available on-line at: The following is a brief extract from the paper:

These men live together in twos and threes, seldom in larger numbers, and live according to their own will and ruling… In most cases they live in cities or in villages, and anything they sell is very dear, the idea being that their workmanship, not their life, is sanctified.—Jerome, Epistle 24.34
Anthony 2
The traditional notion that Egyptian monasticism began as a desert phenomenon through the innovations of Saints Antony (c . 251?–356)and Pachomius (c . 290–346) is unsupported by late antique literature and documentation. For example, Athanasius’ Life of Antony relates that before Antony’s withdrawal (ἀναχώρησις) into the desert, “There were not yet many monasteries in Egypt, and no one knew at all the great desert, but each of those wishing to give attention to his life disciplined himself in isolation, not far from his own village.” Antony’s own asceticism was catalyzed by seeing an old man “who had practiced from his youth the solitary life.”
Similarly, Pachomius began his apprenticeship under Palamon, a local holy man from the village of Šeneset (Chenoboskion) in Upper Egypt who had settled a little way from his village and had become a model and father for many in his vicinity.

Recent scholarship has shown that monasticism in Egypt predates both Antony’s removal to the Outer Mountain at Pispar (c .285) and Pachomius’ founding of his famous monastery at Tabennese in the Thebaid (c . 323). Scholars now recognize a variety of Egyptian monasticism called apotactic, an urban-based movement in which monks still lived in houses within city limits, still engaged in business, and still owned personal property and held regular contact with society. Who were these urban ascetics, and what role did they play in the development of Egyptian monasticism? Why are mainstream Greek and Latin sources nearly devoid of information concerning these ascetics? This essay will seek to answer these questions by examining pertinent documentary and literary sources in order to present a more accurate history of this critical period. It will also posit that the apotactic movement developed—at least in part—out of the much-earlier forms of female asceticism that were manifested through institutionalized virginity and widowhood.”


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